Deforestation and the Role of Paper Products
Great ideas are started on paper. The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper. Important news is spread on paper. Justice is rendered on paper. Rights are guaranteed on paper. Freedoms are declared on paper.
All of this was written on the packaging of a ream of paper I just added to my printer as I started this piece, and it is hard to argue with the importance this medium has had with respect to the development of humankind.
At the same time, paper comes from tree fibers, either from the growing forests or recovered paper. Global deforestation and forest degradation are problems of a global scale, but before addressing the extent to which the insatiable use of paper and the industry behind it is responsible, here’s a little context as to the state of the world’s forests.
To start with, about a half of the forests that once covered the earth are gone. Every year, another 13 million hectares disappear (although afforestation adds another eight back), and the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that only about 22 percent of the world’s old growth forests remain intact.
On the upside, temperate forests in the northern hemisphere are actually expanding, while on the downside, tropical forests and some temperate forests in the southern hemisphere are shrinking. According to the University of Michigan, two percent of the forest in Amazonia is lost annually, and with it, the ecosystem services the forest supplies.
Those ecosystem services are vital. Wherever forests are found, they provide carbon sequestration, protection against floods, landslides and soil erosion, as well as harboring a rich bio-diversity of plants and animals, and raw materials for medicines, to name but a few things; not to mention the 300 million people that call forests their home around the world. So, as the forests shrink and degrade, where does the focus of the problem fall?
I spoke to Nigel Sizer of the World Resources Institute (WRI), and asked him if he could rank the number one threat to global forestry and, without pause, he replied, “The answer to that is very simple. By far the most significant threat to forests is the expansion of agriculture and agricultural commodities,” adding, “the expansion of soy and pasture land, palm oil production and other agricultural activities accounts for probably about 80 percent of tropical deforestation.” The paper and pulp industry is a part of that picture too, but Sizer says this is only a small part and very localized, mainly to parts of Indonesia.
But it is not just clear-cutting forests for agriculture that we need to be concerned about. Tropical forests are also subject to selective logging – where specific types of trees are harvested to make products such as plywood, particle board and other solid wood products. This practice doesn’t clear forests completely, but as WRI’s Sizer explained to me, “It’s like a sponge – you poke holes in the canopy and it [the forest] dries out more quickly – and that makes it more prone to fire,” a major problem in an ecosystem not naturally fire-prone, and not at all adapted to it. When fire does occur in tropical regions, that land is often lost to forestry and is re-purposed as agricultural land. Sizer adds, “There is a complex interplay between the logging industry and agriculture. Often the same company might be doing both; logging first, then using cash to invest in clearing the remainder for agriculture.”
As devastating as this is for the forests themselves, Sizer told me that there is a very real threat that a condition called “Amazon die-back” could occur – a situation where forest degradation leading to moisture loss, in turn causes changes to weather patterns through a series of positive feedbacks. The impact is felt in the forests, but the effects are felt further afield, too. The fear is that a chain reaction could be triggered causing weather pattern changes…